democraciaAbierta: Analysis

Attacks against women justice defenders threaten rule of law in Guatemala

Women judges and prosecutors trying to combat political corruption and impunity face harassment and persecution from on high

Marlies Stappers Sanne Weber
23 May 2021, 12.00am
Group of Ixil women in front of the Palace of Justice during a genocide trial in Guatemala City
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Hiroko Tanaka / Alamy Stock Photo

The concerted campaign by Guatemala’s political and economic elites to undermine key gains made in the country’s long-running struggle against high-level corruption and impunity has taken a new turn.

Several women within the justice system have played a crucial role in this struggle – challenging not only elite interests, but also gender norms in a patriarchal and conservative society. Unfortunately, these same women have also suffered the consequences. They have faced unprecedented judicial harassment and persecution, with far-reaching personal impacts.

Judge Gloria Porras, a lawyer who is widely known for her commitment to combating impunity and corruption, is the latest victim of this process. Porras has served as a judge on the Constitutional Court for the last ten years, and as the court’s president since 2020. But on 13 April, Congress refused to swear her in for a new five-year term as magistrate, based on false arguments of procedural error in her nomination process.

This refusal did not come out of the blue. Porras has faced numerous obstacles to her work, threatening the principle of judicial independence, which is crucial to the rule of law in democratic society.

Guatemala remains a strongly polarised country with a long history of human rights violations, including a 36-year civil war (1960-96) in which acts of genocide were committed. Endeavours to promote and protect human rights frequently give rise to stigmatisation and accusations of left-wing political activism from right-wing sections of society.

Former attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz saw no alternative but to flee the country at the end of her term of office

Porras has suffered different forms of judicial harassment, hate speech and stigmatisation campaigns on social media. In the last two years alone, more than 60 complaints were made against her in response to various Constitutional Court decisions, often regarding corruption and human rights.

At least 20 complaints are still pending. Two have already reached Congress, which will decide whether or not to remove Porras’s immunity as a judge – only in case she is reappointed, since, because of Congress’s refusal to reappoint her, she is currently facing prosecution.

One relates to Porras’s defence of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an international, UN-sponsored body tasked with investigating corruption and impunity in Guatemala. In operation from 2006 to 2019 the CICIG is seen as an example of successful international collaboration to investigate and prosecute illegal security groups and clandestine organisations in Guatemala, including networks of corrupt politicians.

This success made many in the country’s ruling elite nervous, including former president Jimmy Morales, who left office in 2020 and is currently being investigated for corruption as a result of a process initiated by the CICIG. Morales’ decision to end the CICIG’s mandate in 2019, and not allow its head, Iván Velásquez, to return to the country in 2018, was deeply controversial and led to national and international outrage.

The refusal to reappoint Porras as judge cannot be seen as separate from these and other earlier attempts to undo the important progress made to combat corruption and impunity. The decision to not reappoint Porras removed her immunity. To avoid arrest, she currently finds herself in Washington.

Women fighting impunity

Unfortunately, Porras is not the first woman within Guatemala’s judiciary to face harassment or be exiled as a result of their commitment to fighting impunity and upholding the rule of law.

In 2014, former attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz also saw no alternative but to flee the country at the end of her term of office, which also meant the end of her immunity from malicious prosecution and other forms of harassment. She now lives in Costa Rica. Paz y Paz had received international praise for her success in cleaning up the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which until then had been notorious for its inefficiency and corruption.

Under Paz y Paz’s leadership, important progress was made in cases related to corruption and gross violations of human rights. The most important was the investigation and prosecution of the country’s former dictator Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and genocide against the Ixil population in the 1980s during the civil war.

The Ixil genocide case was presided over by judge Yassmin Barrios – another example of the courageous women leading Guatemala’s battle against impunity. Like many other independent prosecutors and judges, Barrios regularly faces threats and intimidation. Just ten days after it was issued, the verdict in the genocide case was overturned by the Constitutional Court – with Judge Gloria Porras dissenting – due to alleged procedural errors.

We must uphold the gains made by courageous women such as Gloria Porras, Claudia Paz y Paz, Yassmin Barrios and Thelma Aldana

Thelma Aldana, Claudia Paz y Paz’s successor as Guatemala’s chief prosecutor, successfully continued the efforts to effectively investigate and prosecute crime and corruption. She was responsible for the successful prosecution of former president Otto Pérez Molina, his vice-president and several cabinet members for a large-scale customs fraud.

She also started investigations against Jimmy Morales and some of his relatives and associates, and led the important Sepur Zarco case to judgment. This was the first case in which a national court recognised and condemned sexual violence, including sexual and domestic slavery, as a crime against humanity.

After her term ended in 2018, Aldana, who had strong public backing, decided to run for the presidency. Unsurprisingly, her actions as attorney general had not pleased Guatemala’s political and economic elite, resulting in charges of corruption and embezzlement being filed against her. Due to these accusations – which are commonly used as legal weapons by the elite – Aldana’s presidential candidacy was refused. She too fled, to the United States, where she was granted asylum in February 2020.

Upholding the rule of law

The ability of judges and prosecutors to work independently is crucial when trying to uphold democracy and promote, protect and respect human rights and the rule of law. Hopes are now directed towards another female justice operator: the current attorney general, Consuelo Porras.

However, in contrast to her predecessors, Porras’s independence and track record in combating crime and corruption are not positive. On 17 April, she changed the prosecutor who was leading the case to remove Morales’ immunity from prosecution. Nevertheless, the Public Prosecutor’s Office continues to investigate Morales for abuse of authority in declaring CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez persona non grata and barring his return in 2018.

It is nevertheless hoped that Consuelo Porras can play a positive role in protecting the rule of law and judicial independence in Guatemala, by intervening in the case against her namesake Judge Gloria Porras (no relation).

An equally important role must be played by the international community. The United Nations, through its special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, has already expressed its “deep concern” about the current risks for the rule of law in Guatemala. US vice president Kamala Harris showed her support for the rule of law in Guatemala by meeting with several exiled justice operators, including Paz, Aldana and Porras.

Similar actions and statements would be welcomed from the EU, which has historically backed Guatemala’s fight against impunity. International support for judicial independence has become even more crucial with the recent approval of a law that increases the government’s control over NGOs and enables it to unregister them. Whether this law will be implemented depends on the Constitutional Court’s decision.

The COVID-19 pandemic currently prevents any repetition of the massive public protests that led to corrupt president Pérez Molina stepping down in 2015. This means that international solidarity and support could prove crucial for upholding the gains made by courageous women such as Gloria Porras, Claudia Paz y Paz, Yassmin Barrios and Thelma Aldana, and for preventing Guatemala’s fragile democracy from sliding towards lawlessness.

Gloria Porras has expressed her commitment to return to Guatemala as soon as possible: “I will continue to work as a judge in Guatemala, without fear of reprisals.” She and her colleagues deserve our support.

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